My Journey - Tragedy and Triumph Pave Clay Millican's Path To NHRA Greatness

Posted by: Jeremy Patterson on 11/17/2021

I first met Clay Millican all the way back in 2005 when the late George Howard put on his infamous $101,000-to-win Top Fuel shootout at the Rocket City Nationals that year. Clay was in the middle of his 6 year reign of dominance over the IHRA’s Top Fuel class and came into the race heavily favored to win.

With crew chief Mike Kloeber calling the shots, Millican tamed the blistering Alabama summer temps and mowed down the competition to take the win and the cash back to Drummonds, Tennessee. Before they were able to leave town, though, Millican had some trouble with his rig. My family owned a trucking company in nearby Athens and our mechanics were able to get Clay fixed up and back on the road. I was also racing my car that weekend, so I didn’t get to spend much time hanging out with the fuel guys, but Clay certainly made an impression on me the few minutes we did get to chat. I remember his smile being so genuine, and that it was obvious he was living his dream.

Ten years after that triumph in Huntsville, Clay’s son Dalton would be taken from this world in a motorcycle accident. As a parent, I can only begin to understand the pain Clay and his wife Donna endured in laying their youngest son to rest, but both of them vowed to continue to live their lives in a way that would make Dalton proud, and if I were to meet Clay for the first time today, I know without a doubt that the thing I would notice first would still be his smile.

Many would lose their light, burying it with their loved one, and they’d be perfectly justified in doing so. But that’s not the Millican way. Instead, Dalton lives on through Clay and his career, which has now spanned two full decades plus a few months. Millican always fielded competitive cars, winning the IHRA world championship an unprecedented six years in a row before making the transition to the NHRA, where he’s gone toe to toe with the giants of the sport. Despite coming up short of winning for the first 19 years, Clay and company never lost that competitive fire. Last year at the Thunder Valley Nationals, held annually on Father’s Day Weekend, Clay would finally race his way to the winner’s circle of an NHRA National Event. It was an electric moment that found many a tear falling and countless hugs shared by fans and racers alike, all of whom, at least for that weekend, became Clay Millican fans.

Myself and our social media manager Randy Pharr were on hand that weekend and we visited with Clay and his team throughout the weekend. “The first time I walked into Clay’s pit area to talk to him, he looked at me and said “You’re not gonna believe this, but check out what this guy just gave me” as he told me the story about the chest protector, and how the guy delivered it to him in the staging lanes right before the first round. I about cried. Later on during the day we were doing a live video of the teardown between rounds, before the semifinals, and the generator shut off. It had overheated while the guys were working on the car, and they didn’t know if they would have enough time to get the car ready for the next round, but they caught a break with a rain delay which helped a lot. The people Clay beat to win made it even more unreal. Steve Torrence, Brittany Force, and Leah Pritchett in the final? Just crazy! But then coming back from the big end of the track how everyone lined up to shake Clay’s hand, and congratulate him. Simply amazing!”

I was standing near Clay’s tow vehicle in staging and noticed the fan with the chest protector, but I didn’t hear what was being said and didn’t really know until later what was going on. I spent most of the day on the wall shooting so it wasn’t until after the race that I caught up on what had transpired and, like Randy, was nearly moved to tears by the amazing gesture and depth of the moment.

Go ahead and grab a box of tissues and watch the video below from NHRA’s My Journey series as Clay speaks candidly with Amanda Busick about the moments that paved the way to where he is today.